Goodbye, Reaganism, too?

Ross Douthat looks beyond or behind the foreground of performances and tactics, and explains the failure of Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign as a rejection of its “Bushism”:

[I]n purely ideological terms, what primary voters were rejecting when they rejected him was the political synthesis of George W. Bush.

In domestic politics, that synthesis had four pillars: a sincere social conservatism rooted in a personal narrative of faith; a center-hugging “compassionate conservatism” on issues related to poverty and education; the pursuit of comprehensive immigration reform as a means to win Latinos for the G.O.P.; and large across-the-board tax cuts to placate the party’s donors and supply-side wing.

In foreign policy, Bushism began with the promise of restraint but ultimately came to mean hawkishness shot through with Wilsonian idealism, a vision of a crusading America whose interests and values were perfectly aligned.

Douthat goes on to assert that the alternatives offered by Rubio’s more successful competitors – specifically “Trump’s populist, illiberal Jacksonianism” and “Cruz’s hard-edge social and economic conservatism” – may represent the (emphasis in the original) “desire for a new synthesis,” not an authentic new synthesis. Unlike Bushism or “compassionate conservatism” in its moment, neither seems likely, in Douthat’s opinion, to “win the median voter.”

The further question concerns the American Republican, or conservative, or rightwing concepts – separately or all together – in relation to the evident crisis of the Republican Party. The coalition that appears to be deconstructing itself before all of our eyes – conservative intelligentsia and base disgusted at their mirror reflections, each other – is not just the Bush coalition, but the Reagan coalition. The question before us is whether the American Right currently possesses a coherent theory of positive national governance at all, and whether, in the absence of a perceived existential enemy, it can produce even the minimum necessary integration of the American state.

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5 comments on “Goodbye, Reaganism, too?

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  1. The existential fear is all that keeps it going because that’s all that appeals to the folks outside of the country club or the financiers banquet. Accept the browning of America & stop worrying about The Jihadi Under the Bed & the only ones left for the lower classes to throw bricks at are the elites.

    I get the feeling conservatism in Europe is less precarious only because they can trace their aristocrats so far back that they’ve become kitsch. National inside jokes don’t quite inspire the pitchforks…

    • I disagree with you on many things, and wouldn’t put it exactly that way, of course, but I think your first paragraph sums up the dynamic quite succinctly!

      As for the second paragraph, I don’t see things quite that way. “Conservatism” in Europe still means something – or some things – different than what it means in America.

      • A know nothing egotistical billionaire, promising to save the frustrated masses from selfish incompetents of the ruling class by way of punching down Now More Than Ever, as if mining for The Good Old Days in the bodies of the rest of the world… The turn threatens to become an ouroboros.

        Have they ever considered maybe the good old days were not all that great for more people than they’re willing to admit? Or that to extent they were for who they were good for, they were a fluke?

        • There’s no absolute and objective measurement of “how good things really were.” The appeal of Trumpismo arises within your blindspot, the patriotic feeling of being part of something “great.” (I don’t think the need and mechanism are absent from your character – or can be – but you experience them via displacement to a different concrete ideal.)

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Noted & Quoted

TV pundits and op-ed writers of every major newspaper epitomize how the Democratic establishment has already reached a consensus: the 2020 nominee must be a centrist, a Joe Biden, Cory Booker or Kamala Harris–type, preferably. They say that Joe Biden should "run because [his] populist image fits the Democrats’ most successful political strategy of the past generation" (David Leonhardt, New York Times), and though Biden "would be far from an ideal president," he "looks most like the person who could beat Trump" (David Ignatius, Washington Post). Likewise, the same elite pundit class is working overtime to torpedo left-Democratic candidates like Sanders.

For someone who was not acquainted with Piketty's paper, the argument for a centrist Democrat might sound compelling. If the country has tilted to the right, should we elect a candidate closer to the middle than the fringe? If the electorate resembles a left-to-right line, and each voter has a bracketed range of acceptability in which they vote, this would make perfect sense. The only problem is that it doesn't work like that, as Piketty shows.

The reason is that nominating centrist Democrats who don't speak to class issues will result in a great swathe of voters simply not voting. Conversely, right-wing candidates who speak to class issues, but who do so by harnessing a false consciousness — i.e. blaming immigrants and minorities for capitalism's ills, rather than capitalists — will win those same voters who would have voted for a more class-conscious left candidate. Piketty calls this a "bifurcated" voting situation, meaning many voters will connect either with far-right xenophobic nationalists or left-egalitarian internationalists, but perhaps nothing in-between.

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Understanding Trump’s charisma offers important clues to understanding the problems that the Democrats need to address. Most important, the Democratic candidate must convey a sense that he or she will fulfil the promise of 2008: not piecemeal reform but a genuine, full-scale change in America’s way of thinking. It’s also crucial to recognise that, like Britain, America is at a turning point and must go in one direction or another. Finally, the candidate must speak to Americans’ sense of self-respect linked to social justice and inclusion. While Weber’s analysis of charisma arose from the German situation, it has special relevance to the United States of America, the first mass democracy, whose Constitution invented the institution of the presidency as a recognition of the indispensable role that unique individuals play in history.

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[E]ven Fox didn’t tout Bartiromo’s big scoops on Trump’s legislative agenda, because 10 months into the Trump presidency, nobody is so foolish as to believe that him saying, “We’re doing a big infrastructure bill,” means that the Trump administration is, in fact, doing a big infrastructure bill. The president just mouths off at turns ignorantly and dishonestly, and nobody pays much attention to it unless he says something unusually inflammatory.On some level, it’s a little bit funny. On another level, Puerto Rico is still languishing in the dark without power (and in many cases without safe drinking water) with no end in sight. Trump is less popular at this point in his administration than any previous president despite a generally benign economic climate, and shows no sign of changing course. Perhaps it will all work out for the best, and someday we’ll look back and chuckle about the time when we had a president who didn’t know anything about anything that was happening and could never be counted on to make coherent, factual statements on any subject. But traditionally, we haven’t elected presidents like that — for what have always seemed like pretty good reasons — and the risks of compounding disaster are still very much out there.

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